ZULU FITS MPAACT
In the October 4 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that—Iran’s so-called “Twitter revolution” notwithstanding—online social activism, with its “weak ties,” can’t hold a candle to 60s-style civil disobedience, which depends on strong personal loyalties and a disciplined, centralized organizational structure to achieve long-range goals. That’s a lesson that might’ve proved useful to the young protagonists of Alonzo LaMont’s Zulu Fits, an occasionally intriguing but undercooked look at how online celebrity culture has corrupted the revolutionary spirit, now getting its world premiere with MPAACT.
Neecee and Giselle are comfortably middle-class African-American sisters with a shared fixation on Jersey Jack Black, a convicted cop killer and cause celebre in the Mumia Abu-Jamal vein. Inspired by his YouTube rants, the two teens style themselves the Blow-Up Sistas and hatch a scheme to bust Black out of the big house, using semi-salacious webcasts to raise funds and recruit Buddy, a hapless post office truck driver who delivers mail to the prison.
There are enough holes in the story to accommodate a fleet of truck bombs, and LaMont’s expositional FBI man, Agent Jackson, doesn’t answer some key questions—such as why the agency, which is obviously aware of the plan, lets it get as far as it does. But then LaMont seems less interested in crafting a police procedural than exploring how racial oppression affects even those like Giselle and Neecee who seem historically, geographically, and economically far removed from the urban underclass and the legacy of jim crow.
At points nearly everyone in the play experiences the “Zulu fits” of the title, a sort of seizure—not unlike the one Herald Loomis suffers in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, when he envisions skeletal slaves crossing the Middle Passage—in which images of past atrocities take hold. The Blow-Up Sistas, for instance, live in a house reputed to have once belonged to a woman who captured free blacks and sold them into slavery with help from her own black servants, and are overcome by the spirits of those servants from time to time. Even cynical Jersey Jack gets the fits.
MPAACT has shown a flair for finding scripts that explore the limits of revolutionary fervor. In 2006 they presented Aaron Carter’s Panther Burn, in which old-school black radicals kidnap the daughter of a black governor, hoping to ignite a race war by convincing the media that white supremacists did it, only to find that society’s short attention span is the real enemy of profound social change. LaMont’s script contains plenty of terse, funny observations on the ongoing tensions between those trying to avoid getting trapped by the past—like Agent Jackson, who dismisses the Blow-Up Sistas, saying “teenage rebellion is Narcissism 101″—and those like Jersey Jack, who asks, “Why should black people ever stop playing the race card? It’s the fucking gift that keeps on giving.”
Certainly the question of how far we’ve actually come in addressing racism remains pertinent in the so-called postracial Obama era. But LaMont muddies the waters with his awkward, shallow critique of online insta-celebrity. Danjuma Gaskin’s spare set design includes three flat-screen monitors across which a series of message board scribblings from Blow-Up Sistas fans scroll from time to time, reinforcing the fact that their secret plot isn’t.
The dissonance between the shallow issue of online shallowness and the more profound but underexplored one of black complicity in racial oppression isn’t resolved satisfactorily in Chuck Smith’s staging; the shift in tone from satire to horror is clumsy. But as Neecee and Giselle, Mildred Marie Langford and Shannon Rose Matesky believably capture the irrepressible passions that young people so easily apply to things they believe are bigger than themselves—even if that belief is tragically misplaced. As Gladwell observes of online social networking, “It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Zulu Fits might resonate more powerfully if LaMont spend more time distinguishing real sacrifice from mere grievance mongering. v
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